Pic of the day: In the near future, information will be free. Or at least operating systems will.
5 years & Linux
The near future is always 20 years away. In the near future there will be a generic cure for cancer. Or so I read in the 1960es. There will also be manned expeditions to Mars, a permanent space colony (in orbit or on the Moon or both), and unlimited cheap energy from fusion will make oil-driven cars hopelessly expensive so they will be replaced by electric ones. The computers will finally be intelligent enough to have a normal conversation with us, and many of them will be the brains of humanoid robots taking all the dangerous and boring tasks away from humans, leaving us with only the creative and enjoyable work. Oh, and cars will fly.
Yes, this is all in a mocking tone, but when I made a similar list in the year 2000, I included the flat-screen TV. These are now common. In fact, all but one of my computer monitors are now flat. So sometimes the future happens. In all fairness, the flat-screen TV of the 1980es (as predicted in the 1960es) was lightweight enough to hang on a wall like a painting. This is hardly the case yet, but we are getting close.
On the other hand, the predictions of the 1960es – or even 1980es – generally failed to foresee the Internet and social computer gaming, which are now major parts of the western lifestyles. Science fiction books from three decades ago expected some variant of the Soviet Union to be alive and well and fiercely competing with the West in space. Globalization was an almost unknown word (it still is, according to my spell checker) and the eradication of human poverty was a dream that died in Dallas, not a political goal being systematically pursued by the world's leading economies.
In short, the near future in 20 years is always more like our present dreams than our future reality. This makes sense when we consider that 20 years is roughly a human generation. We naturally dream about a different (and preferably better) world for our children, if any. In a way, it may therefore be biologically impossible for us to think about the future in a realistic way. However, this problem does not arise in the context of five years, which is "our own time". (Of course, none of us is guaranteed a place in the world five years from now, but we like to assume so.)
The future we imagine 5 years from now is very different from the dreamlike future 20 years ahead. For instance, it has less robots and more Linux.
Linux is an operating system similar to Unix, but while Unix is a trademark and a proprietary product, Linux is an open standard and a cooperative effort. There are many different flavors of it. Linspire (formerly known as Lindows, which is a more descriptive name) tries to look and act as similar to Windows as possible. This may be a bad idea, because in the end it isn't Windows and won't run Windows programs. Oh, it will run many of the same type of programs, but not the same programs. Or at least not generally, though it may be able to run some. Microsoft would probably not be happy if that happened, though. Linspire costs money, unlike most Linux versions, and contains proprietary elements, again unlike most Linux versions. There is however a "Freespire" from the same company.
A good runner-up is Ubuntu Linux, which I myself have used repeatedly (I installed it on a couple machines at work). The fact that I am able to use it for everyday tasks without ever having learned it is a testament to how user friendly it is. Unfortunately, this mostly applies to the most banal tasks, such as surfing the Web or writing letters. Once you need to install new programs not in its extensive catalog, the dark side of its Unix heritage rears its ugly head. For most people, though, this may never happen unless they play games. The system updates itself (and any related user programs you have installed) with minimal fuss, and upgrades are free and downloadable. Ubuntu Linux is itself free, though you may have to pay for user support. The support available on the user forum is generally too technical for non-professionals to benefit from.
Cedega from TransGaming is not an operating system, but a middle platform that can be installed on most Linux desktop computers to let you play a wide range of games developed for Microsoft Windows. It is not free or even particularly cheap, and it does not support all Windows games. (Most notably not The Sims 2. What is the point of a gaming platform that does not support the One True Game??)
So much for the present day. The big thing about Linux is, as I have mentioned before, that it grows fast. Not just in number of users, but in features and user-friendliness. There are at least two reasons for this.
One, Linux is updated frequently: Every half year for Ubuntu, and that does not include patches and small upgrades which are distributed almost daily. This means they quickly get feedback and can improve further. In effect, the difference between beta testers and users is reduced: Beta testing is mainly bug removal, while the evaluation of the actual features is done by the broader user base.
Two, there are several dialects of Linux, which partly compete and partly cooperate. They cater to different tastes in part, but if a good idea is found in one, it is likely to spread to all that can benefit from it. Since Linux is open source, it can hardly be avoided. Anything that is not patented is up for grabs, and anything that is patented can be reverse engineered if the patent is narrow enough. There is some disagreement between Microsoft and the Linux community about some features. But after losing their case against Linspire, MS is cautious. (Also, being overly aggressive against people who work for free is likely to tarnish your image.)
The short of it is: In about five years, if things continue like now, Linux is going to overtake MS Windows as the operating system for common people. It is going to be free, easy to use, stable and fast. And it will be plagued by viruses, worms, trojans, backdoors and all kinds of security problems and scandals. Because the reason why these things almost exclusively target Windows today is that Windows has almost the whole market, including pretty near everyone who don't know how to protect their computer.
Visit the archive page for the older diaries I've put out to pasture.